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prepared by: John Sloan

Table of Contents

Book 1:
Book 2:
Book 3:
Book 4:
Book 5:
Book 6:
Book 7:

The general theme is that the modern Italians have become so degenerate and corrupt in their ways that their lack of knowledge of military affairs and lack of military discipline have led to the ruin of the nation. Italy has become the battleground for foreign "barbarians", that is the Germans, French and Spanish. Machiavelli advocates creatively adapting ancient military practices, but points out how difficult this would be to accomplish. In reading this book as all of Machiavelli's works one should note the strong emphasis on psychological factors as the rationale for recommendations. Click here to return to Machiavelli home page.


The dedication is to Lorenzo Strozzi, one of Machiavelli's Florentine friends. M states that the common view that there is an unbridgeable separation between civil and military affairs is wrong. The ancients saw no such separation. There in fact is a close interrelationship between the two. Even the best civil ordinances require the backing of military power for their effectiveness. Military power lies at the base of all civil order, internal as well as external.
(This key observation is discussed at greater length in Prince and Discourses. He derives it primarily from Xenophon. Lenin and other communist commentators on Clausewitz are always pointing out that he missed this critical point when remarking on the relationship of politics and war, but do not give M credit for preceding Clausewitz let alone for having developed the even more valid proposition that it is "Politics that is war, but conducted by other means.")
In order to achieve the hoped for revival of Italian fortunes it will be necessary to have a great revival of discipline .Go to Contents

Book 1:

The discussion is on virtu and fortuna. Fortuna provides opportunities but virtu is needed to seize control of our lives and obtain real success.
The book establishes the stylistic format for the work, that of a conversation between the prominent condoterri, Fabrizio Colonna, and a group of Florentine citizens. Colonna sets forth M's ideas on military reformation in response to leading questions from the group.
The first general topic is how to organize a military establishment and recruit forces. The internal role of army and military affairs in the political life of the community is also emphasized.
It is unfortunately nearly impossible to imitate the ancients due to the advanced corruption of the modern age. But the institutions of the Romans are worth study and imitation if possible. They might be introduced into a less corrupt society. We should endeavor to adopt their principles. Of these the following are noteworthy: all public honor and reward should be reserved for virtu; do not scorn poverty; value good order and discipline in armies; decline factionalism; oblige the citizens to love each other; prefer the public good to private interest.
Before commencing a great undertaking men must first make necessary preparations so that later, when the opportunity arises, they will be ready to execute their design.
War is not an occupation by which a man can earn a living honorably at all times, i.e. during peacetime. It should not be followed as a business by anyone except the ruler. The profession requires its practitioners to commit all manner of crimes to survive. "War makes thieves and peace hangs them." M gives a long list of examples, mostly contemporary and Roman. Roman republicans did not make war their sole occupation and the Republic continued uncorrupted, but when Caesar and others became military in peacetime and subverted the army corruption set in.

"Every well governed commonwealth should take care that the art of war is practiced in peacetime only as an exercise and in time of war only out of necessity and for the acquisition of glory, and practiced by the state alone."

No infantry can be so dangerous as that which is composed of men who make war their only calling, because the prince either must keep them continually engaged in war or must constantly keep them paid in peacetime or must run the risk of their stripping him of his kingdom.
The Roman emperors disarmed the people to preserve their tyranny.
M favors a militia organized from citizens who support themselves with other trades.
To win a war one must seek victory on the battlefield. This requires a well organized, equipped and trained army. We must have quality recruits obtained by conscription, not volunteers. However the conscription must be based not on undue compulsion but a population educated in the virtue of public service. The best entrance age is 17.
M again describes the link between the advent of a standing army in Rome and the loss of citizen's liberty. The state must keep commanders from having too much power. Go to Contents

Book 2:

The first topic is individual armament and organization of small units based on the arms carried by the troops. The Romans divided their infantry into two parts, light and heavy. Basic weapons were swords and pikes. M favors the Roman example in a combination of the current Swiss and German pike and Spanish sword. The basic regiment would have 3000 swords, 2000 pikes and 1000 arquebusiers.
Infantry is the basic arm and is superior to cavalry. However contemporary infantry falls far short of the required standard while cavalry is not so bad. Therefore M concentrates more attention to reviving infantry standards. He discusses training exercises, use of music, drill, how to organize the regiment, battle formations and details of only limited interest to us today.
The roles of virtu and fortuna are again discussed. M notes that the Christian religion has changed men by making them more pacifistic. It has changed the way of life and values of mankind (at least European). Now that people do not feel the need to defend themselves,since defeat is not accompanied by utter ruin and slavery or death, they will not undertake stern measures for defense. Ancient war was more destructive and resulted in total loss. The dread of danger caused more attention to maintaining good discipline. The worst people fear now is a payment of tribute. "Men no longer care to submit to rigor and continual hardship of military discipline to ward off evils which they are little afraid of." "A state will not expose itself and its subjects to the continual anxiety of military discipline and exercises when these anxieties not only seem largely unnecessary but also are attended with much trouble and inconvenience." The people prefer to rely on fortuna than their own Virtu.
(This is a central theme also of the Prince and the Discourses.) Go to Contents

Book 3:

M proceeds now to discuss the formation of the army in various orders of battle and gives a narrative account of an imaginary set piece battle to illustrate the formation's key attributes. He briefly mentions Greek and Roman methods. M recommends the use of sham battles (field maneuvers) as a training device.
The greatest error of a general is to draw up the army in one line. The ancients deployed in three lines in depth to provide a reserve. In addition, the Romans used light troops as skirmishers. M describes the Greek and Swiss phalanx. He favors a combination of the phalanx and legionary open order. These are to be combined by having subunits of each type. The army is composed to two regiments modeled on Roman legions and two allied regiments corresponding to the Roman auxiliaries. Each regiment has 10 battalions. They are deployed in a formation of 5 battalions for the first line at intervals, three in the second line with larger intervals, and two in the third line also with large intervals. Additional light troops and pike units are deployed in key locations. The cavalry is on the flank. The two native regiments are in the center with their allies flanking them. The army artillery is in a line in the center slightly in front of the army. A regiment occupies a total space of 572 by 400 feet.
The set piece battle opens with a single salvo from the heavy artillery answered in like manner by the enemy. Both do little damage. The skirmishers and light cavalry charge to seize the enemy artillery in the process masking their own artillery. The artillery thus is quickly either out of action or useless. M discusses the role and value of artillery at some length,since his opinion varies from the current popular notions. He believes that since one cannot shelter from artillery on the battlefield one must take aggressive measures to capture the enemy artillery as soon as possible, even if this means one' s own artillery is rendered ineffective. The attacking force must be in open order as skirmishers, otherwise it will incur too many casualties. The more we fire artillery in preliminary salvos the more time we give the enemy to do likewise. He quotes ancient examples to show the value of knocking out enemy weapons quickly by rapid assault. He also wants to avoid the considerable confusion and disruption caused by the smoke from our own artillery. He believes that small arms and light cannon do more damage anyway.
M is much criticized by commentators for his assessment of artillery. See Discourses Book II, Chapter 17 for a fuller discussion. I believe that his proposal stems not so much from an underestimation of artillery as from his more general advocacy of immediate aggressive offensive measures.
The order of battle described herein is only the basic plan. There are many variations. The general must suit the particular order of battle to the nature of the terrain and the enemy force. "Every art has its general rules and principles upon which it is founded". "Never draw up an army so that the front cannot be relieved by the rear". M gives much detail on the drills needed to train troops in the intricate maneuvers required of this combined force. He mentions use of signals, standards, locations for all key personnel, etc Go to Contents

Book 4:

The discussion on forming an army continues. M takes up the precautions required of the general before battle. He again stresses that one must suit the formation to the terrain and the size of the force itself. One should use natural obstacles to defend flanks if one's force is small, but seek battle in an open plain if it is large. Try to overextend the enemy and force him to deploy in a thin line. Avoid locations in which the enemy can easily gain higher ground. Pay particular attention to the directions of wind and sun and their effect on the troops. Try to surround the enemy. Try to insure safe routes to the rear in case retreat is necessary. M makes frequent references to Hannibal's and Scipio' s use of stratagems during deployment of the army.
The general should try to create confusion and terror in the enemy army. Use ambushes. (Most references are to examples from The Strategmata by Frontinus).
A general rule is "to frustrate any of your enemy's designs, it is best to do of your own volition what he endeavors to force you to do." "Never engage the enemy unless you have the advantage or are compelled to act." It is better to try fortuna while she is still favorable than to try nothing and allow her surely to destroy you."
M places great emphasis on the importance of proper psychological preparation of the troops for battle. He uses such phrases as "animate men", "inflame them with desire to fight", "bolder more courageous and resolute". He recommends keeping the soldiers' pay with the army to reduce their incentive to run away. The general needs to be a great orator as well as a soldier to inspire the men. Religion and the soldiers's oath are to be used to inspire the men - put the fear of God in them. M gives many more ancient examples of this technique. Go to Contents

Book 5:

The first topic is proper march orders, both when advancing in a safe location and when in the face of the enemy. Again, the Roman example is followed. The scouts lead and adequate flank guards are provided. Units are organized to facilitate their deployment into proper order of battle. The baggage is behind each unit. M describes at considerable length his concept of the "hollow square" formation to be used when moving in hostile territory. The army must be prepared for immediate action to front, either flank or rear. M gives details of exact frontages and depths for each subunit and the proper location for all officers and special troops.
( This is one of the most detailed descriptions of a "hollow square" to be found in the theoretical literature. One often encounters the claim that this formation was invented by some general or other much later in history.)
M comments on the necessity for clear and unambiguous commands and signals and on the frequency of error and confusion in battle caused by failure to insure this clarity. He notes that the army should travel light and unencumbered. Logistics is a common problem for commanders. Too many supplies can be as much a difficulty as too little. Ancient soldiers made their own bread and did not miss their wine, but moderns can't do without wine or commercially baked bread. Consequently it is much more difficult to provision a modern army and it cannot travel far. M recommends reintroduction of the ancient methods.
He writes that "Wars as currently conducted impoverish not only the beaten, but also the conquering." It was not so in ancient times when the conqueror was always enriched by victory. The reason is than now plunder is not taken by the state but by the private individual. The modern soldiers are too greedy for spoils. Again, the ancient practice is to be preferred.
M provides a long section on the pitfalls to avoid during the march to contact, such as enemy ambushes. "Be careful of trusting to flattering appearances". (See Discourses I - 25 and Prince 18 for his doctrine on appearances.) He notes the importance of good maps and expert, reliable guides. (See Prince 14 and Discourses III - 39 on topography.) The book concludes with many more examples of ancient practices mostly taken from Frontinus. Go to Contents

Book 6:

The discussion turns to proper encampments, security provisions, and intelligence activities. The basic army has 24,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. M gives very detailed dimensions for the camp including its internal layout and the placement of each subunit and facility. The camp is modeled on the Roman practice on nightly encampments. The plan is square with broad cross streets and a wide space for mustering troops between the tents and the outer perimeter berm. Every unit has an assigned location. The camp should be laid out and constructed by expert engineers.
At night one third of the army is kept to arms with one quarter of this force actually mounting guard at all times. M describes password procedures and stresses that the commander must develop procedures for watching all comings and goings from the camp. It is essential to prevent treason and disrupt secret correspondence between enemies and persons in the camp. He advocates severe punishments such as decimation and rewards for virtue.
Of course the ancient policy of prohibiting women and gambling in camp must be re-instituted. "The Romans were so busy they had no time to think of women, gambling, or any of those vile avocations which commonly make soldiers idle and seditious."
M stresses the importance of proper health and medical measures. It is necessary to avoid unhealthy locations for the camp. The general must avoid famine and give the troops plenty of exercise. "The general should be very well acquainted with the nature and situation of the country he is in."
Intelligence operations and methods are stressed. Concealment, deception, secretiveness, and security against the enemy's counterparts are critical. There are many examples from ancient history. One idea is to use any enemy agent one may discover as the conduit for introducing false information into the enemy headquarters. (This is the classic route still favored today.) Try to divide the enemy's strength by making the commander suspicious of his own key advisors. Divide the enemy forces by conducting wide scale raids on his territories, which he will have to defend.
"What most commonly keeps an army united is the reputation of the general, that is, of his courage and good conduct; without these, neither high birth nor any sort of authority is sufficient." M again stresses psychology and "gaining the hearts of the people".
The book ends with an extended discussion of the reasons one should not campaign in winters.. Go to Contents

Book 7:

The topic is fortifications and sieges. (M was called upon for advice on this subject and wrote a famous treatise on fortifications.) He advocates the construction of high walls with the main ditch inside rather than outside. This is to be backed with an earthen rampart on which the artillery is to be mounted. If possible, another ditch can be dug outside. The walls have towers at close intervals and the ditches are provided with casements from which the defender can cover all parts. M writes that it is impossible to defend small places against artillery. Therefor one should not even build detached forts whose loss will reduce the reputation of the commander and morale of the troops. Note the application of psychology even in a discussion of fortification engineering. He also recommends against building too many successive places into which retreat is planned as their existence will itself cause the troops to abandon the main walls prematurely.
M likes the current French practice in fortification. He again gives many examples of stratagems used in defense and attack of forts and stresses the importance of intelligence.

He next gives a list of his 27 general rules of military discipline which follow.

  1. Whatever is of service to the enemy must be prejudicial to you; whatever is prejudicial to him must be of service to you.
  2. He who is most careful to observe the motions and designs of the enemy and takes the most care in drilling and disciplining his army, will be least exposed to danger and will have the most reason to expect success in his undertakings.
  3. Never come to an engagement until you have inspired your men with courage and see them in good order and eager to fight, nor hazard a battle until they seem confident of victory.
  4. It is better to subdue an enemy by famine than by sword, for in battle, fortuna has often a much greater share than virtu.
  5. No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution.
  6. Nothing is of greater importance in time of wars. than knowing how to make the best use of a fair opportunity when it is offered.
  7. Few men are brave by nature, but good discipline and experience make many so.
  8. Good order and discipline in an army are more to be depended upon than ferocity.
  9. If any of the enemy's troops desert him and come over to you, it is a great acquisition - provided they prove faithful, for their loss will be more felt than that of those killed in battle, although deserters will always be suspected by their new friends and odious to their old ones.
  10. In drawing up an army in order of battle, it is better to keep a sufficient reserve to support your front line than to extend it so as to make only one rank, as it were, of your army.
  11. If a general knows his own strength and that of the enemy perfectly, he can hardly miscarry.
  12. The virtu of your soldiers is of more consequence than theirs. numbers.; sometimes the location of the place is of greater advantage and security than the virtu of your soldiers.
  13. Sudden and unexpected accidents often throw an army into confusion, but things that are familiar and have come on gradually are little regarded; therefore, when you have a new enemy to deal with, it is best to accustom yours. men to their sight as often as you can by slight skirmishes before you come to a general engagement with them.
  14. He whose troops are in disorder while pursuing a routed enemy will most probably lose the advantage he had previously gained and be routed in his turn.
  15. Whoever has not taken proper care to furnish himself with a sufficient stock of provisions and ammunition bids fair to be vanquished without striking a stroke.
  16. He who is stronger in infantry than cavalry, or in cavalry than infantry, must choose his ground accordingly.
  17. If you would know whether you have any spies in your camp during the day, you have nothing more to do than to order every man to his tent.
  18. When you are aware that the enemy is acquainted with your designs, you must change them.
  19. After you have consulted with many about what you ought to do, confers. with very few concerning what you are actually resolved to do.
  20. While your men are in quarters, you must keep them in good order by fears. of punishment; but when they are in the field, by hopes and rewards.
  21. Good commanders never come to an engagement unless they are compelled to by absolute necessity, or occasion calls for it.
  22. Take great care that the enemy may not be apprised of the order in which you design to draw up yours. army for battle; make such a disposition that yours. first line may fall back with ease and convenience into the second, and both of them into the third.
  23. In time of action, be sure not to call off any of your battalions to service different from what they were destined to do at first, lest you should occasion disorder and confusion in your army.
  24. Unexpected accidents cannot be easily prevented, but those foreseen may easily be obviated or remedied.
  25. Men, arms, money, and provisions are the sinews of wars., but of these four, the first two are the most necessary; for men and arms will always find money and provisions, but money and provisions cannot always raise men and arms.
  26. A rich man without arms must be a prey to a poor soldier well armed.
  27. Accustom your soldiers to abhor fastidious living and luxurious dress.

Machiavelli next returns to the opening discussion on the possibility of introducing reforms into Italy. He mentions several topics such as naval matters which he purposely excluded. He writes that the qualifications a general ought to possess are those already discussed in the course of the book plus the "ability to strike out something new of his own occasionally." "For no man ever excelled in his profession who could not do that, and if a ready and quick invention is necessary and honorable in any profession, it must certainly be so in the art of war above all others."
The work concludes with a scathing denunciation of the current corruption of Italians and the plea for some prince to follow this advice. "In Italy, therefore, it is not enough to know how to command an army already raised and disciplined. A general must first raise and discipline it himself before he puts himself at its head. Nobody can do that unless he is a prince possessing large territories and a great number of subjects." "For my own part, I cannot help complaining of fate, which either should not have let me know these things, or given me power to put them in execution; this is something I cannot hope for now.... I cannot expect to see so happy a change at my time of life.... I shall venture to affirm that the first state in Italy that will take up this method and pursue it will soon become masters. of the whole province." Go to Contents Or to return to introductory page go to Machiavelli home page